31 by 31 Challenge #12: BODY BAGS (1993)

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When compiling a list of great horror anthologies, Body Bags is an oft yet criminally overlooked contender, which is mind boggling if you’ve ever seen it, or even if you just glance at the film’s roster. Directed by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper for Showtime, and featuring a veritable who’s who of early 90’s celebrities and horror icons–including cameos by Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Tom Arnold–the film was meant to be a creepy-story-of-the-week TV show to compete with HBO’s massively successful Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996). After filming only three episodes, however, the show was canceled, and the segments were compiled into Body Bags, leaving us all to pine for what might have been.

John Carpenter plays The Coroner, a wise-cracking cross between the Crypt Keeper and Beetlejuice, who welcomes the viewer to the county morgue and introduces each of the three tales while drinking formaldehyde and searching for the most grisly and mangled bodies he can find. Despite only popping up between segments, Carpenter absolutely steals the show as The Coroner, and framing the stories as explanations for how these bodies ended up in the morgue is clever and fresh. Carpenter’s clearly having a blast in the role, and his energy translates well, making it just an absolute blast to kick back and enjoy Body Bags.

Carpenter directs the first two segments, “The Gas Station,” and “Hair.” In the first–which is set in Haddonfield, Illinois–a young woman (Alex Datcher) working the late shift at an isolated gas station/mechanics is plagued by strange visitors and unnerved by news of an active serial killer in the area. David Naughton, Wes Craven, and Robert Carradine all drop by at one point or another and the whole thing makes for a wonderfully tight and tense mini-Halloween. “Hair” is equally fun though more goofy; a body horror morality play featuring Stacy Keach as a middle-aged man obsessed with making sure he doesn’t go bald and willing to go to great lengths to keep a full head of hair. David Warner and Sheena Easton round out the players in this icky yet charming little terror fable.

Then there’s the fantastically nutso performance of Mark Hamill in “Eye,” the third and final segment directed by Tobe Hooper. As a baseball player that loses an eye and has it replaced with the eye of a deceased serial killer, Hamill goes all in and brings a few moments of genuine dread to the otherwise campy piece. There’s a twisted sense of glee in watching Luke Skywalker descend into madness in such an unsettling fashion, and the ending is appropriately bloody for a serial killer story.

Carpenter has stated that he never thought of himself as a talented actor, and so ceased casting himself in roles. Watching Body Bags, it’s a shame to think of what might have been if he had at least stuck with this particular character, and if Showtime had more faith in their Crypt-copycat. As with many things in life, and in the horror genre, fans must wonder what-if, but at the very least we have this taste of what should have been, a solid entry in the body of work of not one but two horror legends. Now, bag that up and take it with you.

Body Bags

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #11: THRILLER (2018)

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Earlier this year, Netflix surprise-dropped several low profile horror films from Blumhouse. Such a strategy is always a gamble, but it can occasionally pay off, as in the case of Mercy Black, which dropped at midnight and hooked viewers with its eerie, Slender Man-esque story and glossy visuals. Less successful was Thriller, a standard slasher that gets caught up in it’s own mechanics and forgets to actually slash until it’s too late.

In South Central LA, a group of middle schoolers lures a shy outcast into an abandoned home in order to play a cruel prank. Chauncey, the loner, is sweet and crushing on Lisa, the only vaguely nice girl out of the group of popular kids. She’s reluctant to punk Chauncey, but is pressured to go along with the gag anyway. When the prank goes awry and results in someone’s death, the group bands together and pins the accident on Chauncey, who is sent to a juvenile detention center. Four years later, Chauncey is released and the pranksters, now seniors about to enjoy their Homecoming weekend, find themselves getting sliced and diced by a masked killer.

There’s a lot of time spent establishing who’s who in this film. It’s made especially challenging because the group of kids that pull the prank is unnecessarily large, and they’re all recast with older actors after the opening time jump. Many of the characters fit into slasher stereotypes as well and could easily have been combined for digestibility, but this may be because Thriller quickly pushes the horror to the background in favor of a social study on what it means to grow up in a neighborhood like Compton and how that affects young residents. For almost an hour, we explore how some characters seek to escape their home streets, and their various plans for doing so, while others have decided to embrace the roughness and the hard life as a means to either survive or thrive. These are interesting ideas to explore, and getting to spend time with our characters helps break down some of those tropes and make them more human so that when the killing does start happening, the audience feels each death.

The trouble is that most of the kills happen off screen, and a bloodless slasher is a boring slasher. Combine that with a group of unseasoned actors who can’t sell their characters and the result is a watered down fright flick that leaves little to be desired. Final Girl Lisa (Jessica Alain) is bland, receiving the least amount of development despite being our focal character. Chauncey (Jason Woods) is all brute and no brain, a revenge-fueled monster without layers, and Kim (Pepi Sonuga) is a sweet party girl chasing a local rapper that only has a personality disorder in which she speaks in the distorted voice of her dead sister. Huh? It’s all too strange, or familiar, to have any real impact, and genre fans will be able to call every expected turn before it happens, all the way up to the final, lackluster finale.

Unfortunately, Thriller‘s uninspired title is an accurate reflection of it’s uninspired plot. What could have been a nuanced, updated, urban version of Prom Night (1980) instead fizzles as a generic “seen it before” slasher. I have to wonder if first-time director Dallas Jackson originally envisioned an entirely different type of movie, given how much time is spent exploring the daily lives of these characters, and if the horror element was shoehorned in during later stages of writing/development. I’m not sure what the story there might be, but I have to assume that it’s far more thrilling than the result.

Thriller

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #10: CHOPPING MALL (1986)

@craiggors

I think the moniker “cult film” gets thrown around a bit too much these days, but when it comes to Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall there is no more fitting description. The fandom surrounding the movie alone puts the majority of other cult films to shame, and you’ll struggle to find a more ridiculous yet oddly charming premise than than of a state-of-the-art mall security system featuring three robots that go berserk thanks to a freak lightning accident on the night a group of teens are trespassing. I mean, come on.

In order to cut down on rime and deter thieves, Park Plaza Mall has installed a new, high tech security system featuring alarms, steel doors, barred windows, lock-down procedures, and three pudgy black robots equipped with lasers and tasers. On the night they’re installed, four teenage couples plan to hide out in a furniture store until the coast is clear and then wild out in all the ways you’d expect 80’s teens to get down. The trouble is, the robots’ safety functions have been rewired by a lightning storm and now instead of patrolling to protect, they’re hunting to kill.

As much as Chopping Mall is a cult film–which it certainly is–it is also something else that contemporary audiences don’t see too much of being made these days: a party film. It’s the ideal movie to watch with a group of friends, yummy snacks, and your chosen libation as you revel in the absurdity and embrace the B-movie brilliance. And there truly is lots to embrace, unironically. Kelli Maroney and Barbra Crampton lead a pack of game actors and they’re both fantastic. Maroney in particular had an underrated, under-the-radar career and it’s nice to see her get a moment in the spotlight in this film as the nerdy, prim new face turned badass final girl.

There’s also the nostalgic appeal of mall culture, which was at its heyday at the time the movie was made; a culture that has drastically diminished if not altogether vanished in the age of Amazon. If you ate up the third season of Stranger Things and wanted more, Chopping Mall will scratch that itch. Gone are the days where shopping was an experience, an outing that was combined with the plink-plunk of the arcade, free samples at the food court, and bizarre, brightly colored stage shows in the middle of everything. If you miss such times, or at least remember them fondly, Chopping Mall is the goofy portal back to that era you’ve been missing.

Look, no one out there is grumbling that Platoon unjustly stole the Best Picture Oscar from Chopping Mall in 1986 (although you could make a case for Children of a Lesser God, but I digress). It’s a fun, silly movie that the filmmakers, cast, and fans are all completely aware is absolute nonsense. But that’s the joy of Chopping Mall. Much like the mall culture the movie itself so perfectly encapsulates, the film is a relic of a bygone age, but one that still has champions and new converts in our modern era. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better popcorn movie for your Halloween get-together, so give it a watch. You’ll really just have the nicest day.

Chopping Mall

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #9: THE MANGLER (1995)

@craiggors

Adapting a Stephen King story is a tricky business. Despite the number of King’s tales that have been shifted from page to screen, Hollywood hasn’t quite pinned down a formula for how to make a successful King film. By and large, the general rule seems to be that if you want to tilt the scales in your favor, it’s best to stack the deck with horror royalty. Think Romero taking on Creepshow (1982) and The Dark Half (1993), or Carpenter with Christine (1983). Following that logic, a film directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Robert Englund and Ted Levine should be a complete blockbuster. But logic has failed us here.

The prize machine of the Blue Ribbon Laundry service is a monstrous device known as the mangler. It’s a dangerous press, but safety regulations seem to be the least concern of factory owner Bill Gartley (Englund). When an accident involving Gartley’s niece Sherry (Vanessa Pike) splashes blood onto the mangler, the sinister clunker appears to come to life, and it’s out for blood. Officer John Hunton (Levine) gets involved in the case when another worker dies, and he turns to his demonologist brother-in-law Mark (Daniel Matmor) when events at Blue Ribbon begin to defy earthly explanation.

There’s a decent amount to work with when it comes to The Mangler. As in the original short story, collected in Night Shift, there’s a commentary on American capitalism and gluttonous consumerism, specifically in how the working class is sacrificed in the name of dollar signs, and how the bodies of young women are exploited and abused with ease and encouragement in a patriarchal society. And then of course, a demonic laundry press comes to life and literally chases our heroes through an M.C. Escher hellscape because of some blood and a few antacids. It’s two completely different films. One half, the horror comedy headed by Englund in his droopy prosthetics and half-man/half-machine ensemble, is fun and goofy. The other half is a strange neo-noir tale with Levine moaning and groaning and carrying the weight of the cruel, unjust working world on his ever-so-broad shoulders.

What The Mangler gets wrong is trying to give equal weight to these two different stories being told. The safer bet would have been to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of the plot and go all in on the black comedy angle, much in the way that Carpenter does with Christine. In attempting to balance the humor with melodrama, Hooper creates a film that just doesn’t gel. It looks great–the sets are full of grime and slick muck and lazy steam and you can feel the woe and corruption practically pulsating in the walls–but visuals aren’t enough to save a disjointed narrative.

Short stories don’t always work when told in longer format, but there’s enough in The Mangler that could have made for an interesting feature. Small town elites sacrificing their virginal daughters could have been played up, as well as the more serious themes of corruption, greed, and misogyny. Perhaps Hooper didn’t want to strike out too far from King’s original work. The direction is often hesitant, as though he knew he had to choose between black comedy and melodrama but couldn’t commit. Unfortunately for him, and the viewer, neither half is strong enough to stand on its own and instead we’re left with something a bit more, well…mangled.

The Mangler

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #8: GAGS THE CLOWN (2018)

@craiggors

As we inch further and further into the twenty-first century, it’s only appropriate that horror movies and their marketing becomes increasingly more meta. Such is the case with Gags the Clown, whose origin began in the wave of clown sightings across America in 2016, particularly in Green Bay, Wisconsin. While at first it seemed people were being stalked by a genuine nut job in a clown suit, it soon came out that the sightings were staged promotion for an upcoming killer clown movie. This killer clown movie.

Pictures and video of a macabre-looking clown known only as Gags have been consuming the citizens of Green Bay. Gags seems to appear and disappear at random, holding aloft a quarter of black balloons and looking anything but cheerful. The city is rapidly falling into mass coulrophobia. Mischievous pranksters are taking advantage of the fear to cause mischief, parents are unwilling to let their children out at night, and the police have their hands tied as Gags hasn’t committed any actual crime. It’s under these circumstances that a few locals (some teens, a TV news reporter, and a right-wing podcaster) decide to take matters into their own hands. But when it comes to Gags, those black balloons are the least of your worries.

As you may have guessed, Gags is a found footage film, and the tactic works well here, especially when it comes to heightening the tension and highlighting the fear that’s strangling this community. The story bounces between four distinct groups, none of whom have complete knowledge of what’s really going on until the narrative threads converge at the climax. Director Adam Krause knows how to keep the story moving and feel fresh, even if the characters are as stale and musty as the inside of Gags’ clown suit. This would be less of a crime if there were more scares, but aside from the prologue and a few creepy moments in the first half, Gags holds back a lot for the majority of the film.

There are scattered moments throughout that really work, however; it’s most effective when the viewer begins to realize that the threat Gags poses is not as simple or mundane as a madman in makeup. The unnatural manner in which Gags operates adds a very different, very uneasy angle to the standard story of a dangerous clown. This is enhanced by a strong sense of foreboding in the film’s atmosphere, and competent camerawork. A lot of the sequences, particularly towards the end, blend together different means of recording to create a seamless sense of despair while also keeping hold of the story. It must have been a bitch to edit.

Found footage, as I’m sure we all know, is a tricky medium and sub-genre to get right. Gags the Clown doesn’t fail by any means, but it also doesn’t get the gold star. The weird, absurd finale is dark and goofy, but somewhat off-kilter for what came before. It’s an apt representation of the film as a whole, I think. There are bubbles of strange enjoyment, but in between is murky confusion populated with paint-by-numbers characters. Still, it’s good for a laugh. Even if that laugh is more of a retching cough.

Gags the Clown

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #7: HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971)

@craiggors

Have you ever felt like stabbing a stranger that’s attempted to kiss you? Well then, you’ll find it quite easy to sympathize with Anna (Angharad Rees), a traumatized young girl who seeks only to appreciate beauty in the world, experience just a touch of kindness, and perhaps find a place in a loving, caring family. But when you’re in a Hammer Horror film, those are gifts you shouldn’t expect the universe to bestow upon you.

Infant Anna witnesses the brutal murder of her mother at the hands of her father and is subsequently traumatized. Fifteen years later, Anna begins exhibiting strange, violent tendencies that catch the attention of a local doctor and amateur psychoanalyst (Eric Porter), who believes he can cure Anna’s troubled mind. The trouble is, Anna’s violence is not rooted in psychological horror, but in spiritual possession driving her to murder. For Anna’s father was no mere one-off killer…he was Jack the Ripper.

Hands of the Ripper has a deliciously nonsensical plot that plays out on gorgeous, over-the-top Victorian Gothic set pieces that demand you watch this movie while sipping tea in a corset. It’s all a bit My Fair Lady if Henry Higgins was even more of a creepazoid and Eliza Doolittle was a doey-eyed serial killer. There, that’s my elevator pitch for Broadway’s next big smash. Silliness aside, this is still one of Hammer’s best movies. All of the performers are game, the direction is solid, and the costumes and sets are proper Anglophile-porn.

What’s interesting about Ripper is that it’s very much a transitional film for Hammer, coming at a time where the studio was trying to balance the Gothic sensibilities that they had built a reputation on with the increasing demands for blood and gore that modern audiences craved. Director Peter Sasdy is able to handle this balance with aplomb, leaving us with some great kills in juxtaposition against the sophisticated Victorian setting. Even the psychological angle, which doesn’t pan out plot-wise, is an interesting addition and a harbinger of the shift that horror would begin to take in the decade ahead.

Porter is excellent as the initially sympathetic then skeevy psychiatrist, and Rees is able to shift from rabbity maiden to unhinged maniac with practiced ease. The two of them lead an all around fun, suspense mystery whose slow burn is heated up by nasty deaths that propel events towards a tense, Shakespearean finale. Don’t wash your hands of this one, folks.

Hands of the Ripper

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #6: HELL NIGHT (1981)

@craiggors

An ear-piercing scream worthy of consideration for the Jamie Lee Curtis Scream Queen Award (that I just made up). Party-going teens in costume. A pitch black night where anything and everything can go wrong. This is the opening to Hell Night, a once forgotten slasher that failed to attract on its debut, but is far more unique than its basic premise and rote setting would suggest.

It’s Hell Night at the local college, a night of debauchery and ritual hazing meant to induct nubile young co-eds (played by actors clearly pushing thirty, obviously) into Greek life. King of frat life Peter (Kevin Brophy) leads four likable teens to nearby Garth Manor, a Victorian mansion left locked and vacant since the brutal slaughter of the entire family by the deranged father, and the disappearance of the deformed youngest son. If Marti (Linda Blair), Jeff (Peter Barton), Seth (Vincent Van Patten), and Denise (Suki Goodwin) can survive the night alone in the massive house, they’ll be initiated into Alpha Sigma Rho. But as they’ll soon find out, Garth Manor isn’t as empty as it first appears.

Hell Night did not premiere to great fanfare or box office success. Even in 1981, the newly minted slasher genre was overflowing with Halloween (1978) knockoffs and Friday the 13th (1980) copycats. Some of them, like Prom Night (1980) stood out from the crowd, while others floundered. There was just too much competition. It’s a shame, because despite Hell Night‘s paint-by-numbers premise, it’s not quite as cookie cutter as we might think. Take Peter’s monologue explaining the mythology of the house and the massacre that occurred there, for example. In most slashers, that speech would be accompanied by a gauzy flashback where we see the murders committed in pantomime, but not here. Instead, it’s straight dialogue. The film trusts it’s audience to fill in the blanks themselves, a brilliant tactic.

Sure, there’s still lots of slasher tentpoles present. Sex, drugs, isolated locations stalked by a mythic maniac. But then there’s the Gothic set dressing of the manor, an unusual choice for a slasher, which as a rule catered to contemporary teen audiences and moved away from anything too grand or eccentric. It makes the film feel a bit Poe-ish, which is a surprisingly nice touch amidst the standard silliness. Equally unusual for a slasher, there’s no nudity involved in the more titillating scenes. Instead, the film earns its R rating based solely on the violence and though it takes awhile to build to the slice-and-dice, when the kills do happen, they’re quite creative.

Hell Night isn’t Halloween, and that’s okay. It’s not trying to be–and that’s what makes it so fun. Director Tom DeSimone knew his audience, and you can tell the cast did as well. The result is an ideal sleepover movie best watched in early autumn with a heavy blanket, some popcorn, and a mug of warm cider. Snuggle up and give it a watch, you won’t regret it. This I pledge.

Hell Night

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror